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A Lesson in Old Fogeyism

September 20th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 2 Comments · Industry

Nostalgia is a pleasant sensation. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t be searching for all my old college mates on Facebook. Nostalgia is the illusion that things were once better than they are now or, perversely, that things we find ridiculous today have some sort of kitsch value.

It’s worth keeping in mind that it was ever thus. Andrew Sullivan linked to this Atlantic article by Budd Schulberg from 1947 that complains about how Hollywood’s economic structure has forced it to move away from excellent movie making to more crowd-pleasing mass spectacle.

The push to fill movie theaters with a steady diet of new releases led to ballooning budgets (“In our inflationary market a film that costs less than a million dollars is tagged as a “B” and a two-hour feature that draws on the best talents in all departments can hardly be brought in, as they say, for less than three million”) and the celebrity system (“Today, if a star can act—or create a living character on the screen—it is only an incidental embellishment of his stature as a member of our contemporary mythology”) have led to star vehicles churned out to make a quick buck. Moviegoers begin to prefer fantasy and “reverie” over seriously artful pictures, condemning them to a schizoid disorder of some kind.

Schulberg even has a top ten list of conditions that could force the industry to move in a more artful direction. To summarize, changes in the distribution system (1 and 2), changes in disposable income (3), the unsustainability of high production costs (4), a generational and ideological change in who makes films (5, 6 and 7), internationalization of the industry (8), and better educated and more critical filmmakers and audiences (9 and 10).

By changing just a few words here and there, I could write a convincing plagiaristic treatise on today’s gaming industry. Replace block booking and double-features with MMOs and digital delivery. Change the disposable income to variable pricing and micropayments. High production costs speak for themselves, as do the issues of independent development, global reach and better insight into the medium. I’m sure I could a dozen essays on each of these points arguing how they would change the gaming world and deliver us better, more sophisticated games instead of the steady diet of franchises, me-toos and juvenalia.

But did any of this stuff change the movie industry? For a while. The high cost of American development in the 1960s led to the more intimate movies of the 70s. Then advances in technology made epic blockbusters viable again, and back came the spectacle movie. The collapse of the studio system led to independent auteur cinema, but eventually created a system of superstar free agency where movies became “Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson in …”.

And it’s not like mediocrity ever went away. We only remember the Chinatowns, not The Midnight Man.


2 Comments so far ↓

  • Arlo

    Great post.

  • Alan Au

    “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

    The parallels with the film industry are actually quite depressing, because as noted, they really haven’t changed much over the years. Sure, technology is better, but the fundamental underlying economic model of film production is still very much the same old “per-project” thing, with all of its spectacular successes and dismal failures.

    The games industry (with a few notable exceptions, e.g. Blizzard) suffers from that same per-project mentality. Developers may no longer be living paycheck-to-paycheck, but now they’re living license-to-license. To be sure, there are casualties. Sometimes the devs are swallowed up into other companies. Other times the companies simply dissolve, and the collected talent pool disperses elsewhere into the tight-knit game development community. The side-effect is that many veterans leave the industry, which is bad for retaining institutional wisdom.

    The reality is that, with the current business model, the industry is inherently unstable, which drives companies to minimize risk. Less risk means less potential for innovation. The question is where the research and development is occurring. Film has tried to sponsor indie film makers, and YouTube has provided users with the ability to publish their own content. Games are on the fast-track towards this, and it offers great potential for innovation and forward movement. However, at its core, it’s still a fickle industry.

    Why couldn’t the games industry have evolved to mirror the software industry instead of the film industry? Then again, it might simply be trading one set of problems for another.